Terry O’Neill: Background Stories

The British photographer TERRY O’NEILL had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right moment, the talent to create a photographic memorial to the stars he photographed, and a knack for capturing history in the making. Which was in no small part attributable to the fact that he liked people. With the possible exception of Steve McQueen.

  • Text
    Wiebke Brauer
  • Fotos
    Terry O’Neill

Terry O’Neill had actually wanted to be a jazz musician. Which perhaps explains the ease with which he moved among the Beatles and the Stones – and why David Bowie basically appointed him as his personal photographer. But what made his pictures world-famous were an extraordinary mixture of patience, luck and an eye for special moments. The best example of this is the picture that launched his career. In 1959 O’Neill was working as a flight attendant and photographer for British Airways when he took a picture of an elderly gentleman taking a nap among African dignitaries in the airport waiting area.

“The funny thing about Brigitte Bardot is that I am certain I was in love with her. But she couldn’t speak a lick of English. And I didn’t speak French. So our relationship, regrettably, was only between my camera and her beauty.”
Terry O'Neill

What O’Neill didn’t know at the time was that this gentleman was the British Home Secretary Rab Butler. A passing journalist suggested selling the photo to a newspaper, and the next day the picture appeared on the front page of the Sunday Dispatch. His fee: twenty-five pounds. Not long after, O’Neill got his first job at the Daily Sketch.

He photographed the Beatles squinting into the bright daylight. As for the Stones, their manager Andrew Loog Oldham wanted a story done on his protégés. O’Neill suggested outfitting them with some suitcases to make them look like a touring band. As we can see, these weren’t just coincidences that played into the photographer’s hands; it was also his ideas for setting the stage that made his photos so special. But what all his pictures had in common was that either the captured moment proved to be a document of the times, like the nudes of Ursula Andress as a symbol of a new freedom, or a mise-en-scène that told a whole story, like the shot of Faye Dunaway on the day after the Oscars.

Faye Dunaway the morning after she won an Oscar for her performance in Network. O’Neill had persuaded the guy who worked the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel to let them in for a few minutes early in the morning. The actress had barely got any sleep. “This type of shot, which was spur of the moment by today’s standards, would not happen today,” O’Neill said many years later.

With apparent ease, O’Neill’s field of work expanded from Europe to Hollywood. His marriage to English actress Vera Day ended after thirteen years when he moved to Los Angeles, despite the fact that he commuted back to London by Concorde every weekend. A complication, however, was that he was also very fond of other women. Asked how he won the trust of so many beautiful female stars, he replied, “Compliments. More compliments, that’s it. And, well . . . you could add a few more compliments.”

As a rule, Terry O’Neill never said anything negative about the people he worked with. The only exception was Steve McQueen. “As soon as we opened the door to his office, I could just tell that this was not going to go well. And sure enough, he did start yelling to get out, get out, get out.” O’Neill took as many photos as he could and fled.

Men liked him because he didn’t put himself in the foreground. Michael Caine didn’t mind being photographed snoring in a recliner, Peter Sellers would call him regularly at all hours of the night because he was ( . . . )

Read the whole article in rampstyle #28.
TERRY O’NEILL was born in London on July 30, 1938. The son of Irish parents became famous with his photographs of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and today he is regarded as one of the foremost chroniclers of the swinging sixties. He photographed Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra, with whom he was also friends. When O’Neill died on November 16, 2019, he had already put his camera down for good because he found the public relations people behind today’s celebrities to be a hindrance to his candid style.
The celebrity portrait book Every Picture Tells a Story not only features some of thephotographer’s most famous works, but also provides all the stories behind them. Thebook waspublished by ACC Art Books.
More fine art and photography books are available at iconicimagesgallery.com.
rampstyle #28 Into the Great Wide Open

rampstyle #28 Into the Great Wide Open

Ein exklusives Fashion Editorial mit Tim Bendzko. Bislang ungesehene Bilder der Fotografin Anouk Masson Krantz. Ein Gespräch mit Star-Regisseur Guy Ritchie und das etwas andere Interview mit Musiker Dan Auerbach. All das und vieles mehr erwartet Sie in dieser Ausgabe der rampstyle.

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